Monday, December 19, 2011
Kings seem misguided in hiring Sutter
By Scott Burnside
As much as Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi feels in his gut that Darryl Sutter is not just "his" guy but "the right" guy, it's hard to view Sutter's hiring -- one that will take effect Tuesday -- as anything but a misguided calculation that will end badly for both men and for a franchise that looked like it was on the yellow brick road.
Lombardi's relationship with Sutter goes back years. He trusts the venerable hockey man, trusts his instincts honed from 406 NHL regular-season games in Chicago and the time spent behind the bench in Calgary, Chicago and San Jose, where the two worked alongside each other.
But this Kings team needs more than trust. They need something fresh and new and robust. They need someone that will harness the significant potential that had gone dormant under Terry Murray, who was fired last week.
This is a Kings team that clearly chafed at Murray's coaching. The offense is poised for a dramatic downturn, as they are on pace to score 50 to 60 fewer goals than two seasons ago when they first emerged from their rebuilding efforts with a dynamic young squad that tallied 241 times, fifth-most in the Western Conference.
This team that had made the playoffs two seasons in a row now languishes in 10th place.
The once dangerous Kings rank dead last in goals scored per game, dead last in five-on-five scoring and 23rd on the power play.
They have not managed to score more than two goals in 12 straight games and were embarrassed 8-2 in Detroit on Saturday.
The rapid descent from a team with high expectations to disarray has been equal parts shocking and mystifying.
No longer was the King's success going to be measured in "Can we make the playoffs?" but in "How far do we go in the playoffs?"
The business plan that has seen the Kings shoulder their way into the competitive California sports and entertainment marketplace has been successful, but continued success is contingent on the team continuing to move forward.
Right now, this team looks nothing like a playoff team let alone one that might go on its first sustained run since the now-seminal run to the 1993 Stanley Cup finals.
And so this week marks the fork in the road for both Lombardi and the franchise.
Take the right fork and the Kings will emulate the St. Louis Blues, who fired Davis Payne and replaced him with veteran Ken Hitchcock and have since become a Western Conference power that looks locked into a playoff berth.
Take the wrong fork and the franchise sees much of the good work done in both building and selling this team undone. Take the wrong fork and expect significant upheaval at the top, starting with the dismissal of Lombardi and Sutter and the onerous task of installing a new leadership team and explaining to fans how this all went so horribly wrong.
Standing at this intersection of success and failure is Sutter.
While there is more than a little mythology surrounding he and his entire family, Sutter's coaching resume is not exactly chock full of turnarounds and valiant dashes through the postseason.
Outside of the Calgary Flames' surprise run to the Cup finals, Sutter's coaching record is actually marked more by mediocrity than anything else.
Make no mistake, that 2004 run -- one that might have yielded a championship had video review of Martin Gelinas' attempt in Game 6 been ruled a goal -- was one of the high points for the Flames' organization. Sutter deserves full marks for that success. But that was both a long time ago and not necessarily emblematic of his entire body of work.
There was the eighth-seeded Sharks' upset of the Presidents' Trophy winners from St. Louis in 2000, but Sutter's Sharks were then handled in five games by Dallas in the second round.
Twice Sutter coached teams to first place in their division, Chicago in 1992-93 and San Jose in 2001-02, but his Blackhawks were dispatched in the first round, while the talented Sharks were bounced in the second round. In that 2002 series against a strong Colorado team, the Sharks could not hold series leads of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2, losing in seven games.
And Sutter was gone 24 games into the following season.
He resurfaced in Calgary where he coached for three seasons, missed the playoffs once, went to the aforementioned 2004 finals and lost in the first round before stepping away from coaching to concentrate on managing the Flames into the ground.
He was essentially fired from his post as GM midway through last season and, while coaching and managing are obviously different, Sutter's misguided personnel decisions must also be considered when it comes to assessing whether he's the right man to get the Kings back on track.
Beyond the 2004 run, Sutter-coached playoff teams have managed to get beyond the second round of the playoffs just once (1994-95, a season that was cut short by a labor stoppage).
By Lombardi's own definition of where this Kings team is at -- not playing with house money anymore, not being in a position in which every win sparks a parade -- it seems counterintuitive to assume Sutter can do what Murray could not.
Both are old-school coaches. Both preach hard-nosed play with an emphasis on defense.
What is the logic to suggest that where one failed the other will succeed? In fact, it does a disservice to Murray to suggest that he somehow lacked the intestinal fortitude to coach the way Sutter is expected to.
And so, we view the Sutter hire as a lateral move at best.
Sutter is more ornery, earthier, than the classy Murray -- Sutter's arrival behind the Kings' bench was delayed as he had to arrange for the operation of his expansive cattle operation in Alberta -- but all that suggests is that he's less likely to mix well with the Los Angeles media. Those traits don't naturally suggest success on the ice.
As well, Sutter's significant time away from coaching makes this choice even more curious than his overall lack of playoff success as a coach.
Why not, for instance, give John Stevens a chance to turn the Kings around?
Stevens took Philadelphia to a surprise run to the 2008 Eastern Conference finals. He is a smart, well-respected guy.
He is, unlike Sutter, in the coaching mode, familiar with this team and its flaws.
Similarly, how is Sutter a more attractive option than Randy Carlyle, who was recently removed as head coach in Anaheim but who has at least acquitted himself well in the playoffs, taking the Ducks to the 2006 Western Conference finals and winning it all in 2007?
But Lomabardi, in going with his gut, has painted himself and ownership into a corner, a kind of all-in move that leaves no margin for error.
|Darryl Sutter led the Calgary Flames to the 2004 Stanley Cup finals.|
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.